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The big city dream Feb. 11, 1853

Benicia beaming despite loss of spotlight as state’s capital

By Carl Nolte

Carl Nolte / The Chronicle

Benicia’s historic Capitol building opened for business on Feb. 11, 1853 and had a one-year run as the seat of state government until Sacramento beckoned.

On the northern shore of the Carquinez Strait, not far from Vallejo, is a small town that dreamed of becoming a big city. It is Benicia, a town that opened the first public school in California, the first public hospital, the first volunteer fire department, the first Masonic Hall, the first big foundry and a frontier Army post right out of a John Wayne movie. For one giddy year, Benicia was the capital of the state of California.

Back when California was new and everything was possible, the founders “had no doubt that Benicia was to be the Pacific Coast metropolis,” wrote Hubert Howe Bancroft, the state’s first historian.

“They had great expectations,” said Dr. James Lessenger, a physician who has written books on Benicia’s story.

But the great plans never worked out, and now Benicia is a town of 28,192, according to the latest estimates, a pretty place with 27 public parks and a solid tax base. “A leafy small town with an industrial park attached,” Lessenger calls it.

In a way, Benicia is California in miniature, a town with layers of history, and a place that was willing to change with the times. When one plan didn’t work out, the town switched to another.

Nothing ever quite went as planned, even the town’s name.

When Robert Semple acquired the townsite from Don Mariano Vallejo, he promised to name it after Vallejo’s wife, Francisca. But just then, the upstart village of Yerba Buena changed its name to San Francisco, so the newer town took one of Senora Vallejo’s other names, Benicia.

In 1847, the U.S. Army built a cavalry post at Benicia Point on Carquinez Strait, where the rivers met the seawater, a sort of frontier Gibraltar. A year later, gold was discovered, and California’s world changed forever.

The town of Benicia was right in the middle of it, and in the winter of 1853, Benicia was made the state capital. The state’s first capital was San Jose, but the politicos, the famous “legislature of thousand drinks,” thought San Jose was too muddy in winter, San Francisco was too rowdy, Vallejo had only one building, and Sacramento too unready.

Benicia had a brandnew City Hall, a brick building with two Doric columns — “like a small Greek temple on the frontier,” Lessenger recalls it. Benicia offered it at no cost.

The new Capitol opened for business on Feb. 11, 1853. The state Senate met on the first floor, the Assembly on the second. State offices took up four rooms in the Capitol. The State Archives and the Treasury were in a nearby building.

The Legislature met for two sessions, helping to put the new state of California on its feet: The issue of slavery was discussed, immigration was on the agenda, and the formation of a state university and a state prison.

In 1853, California had 300,000 citizens, but even then Benicia was too small for the big time.

Sacramento then made a serious bid. It offered land, better transportation and a central location. Lessenger believes a bribe of $680,000 — more than $3 million in today’s money — was involved. On Feb. 25, 1854, Benicia’s brush with glory was over.

The Benicia Capitol still stands; it’s a state historic park. Benicia survived and prospered.

The small 1847 cavalry post developed into the Army’s Benicia Arsenal, which produced ammunition for the country’s wars and was an economic mainstay for the town.

The famous shipbuilder Matthew Turner produced 154 wooden sailing ships in his Benicia yard. There was also a big industrial complex at the east end of town.

But the westerly wind blows hard through the Carquinez Strait, and the winds of change blew over the town. Times changed; industry moved. By the Depression, Benicia’s population dropped to only 3,500.

In the ’50s, Benicia developed a reputation as a wide-open town with gambling dives and prostitution. It was honest vice, too. It was said that the police chief owned two of the brothels.

The biggest economic blow came in the 1960s when the arsenal closed. That might have been a death blow for many towns, but Benicia developed something called the Benicia Plan, which converted the old arsenal property into an industrial park — part heavy industry, like an asphalt plant, and part light industry. There were even artist studios in a section of historic buildings called Art Benicia. Lessenger points out there are 300 companies, large and small, in the industrial park.

All of this is on the east end of town: a kind of jumble of history and commerce. The beautiful white Victorian commanding-officer’s house, a remnant of Army days, overlooks the Valero oil refinery.

The days of wooden shipbuilding are over, but still, Benicia is a seaport. Three large vessels, one carrying imported automobiles, were in port the other morning. It is also a rail freight center.

It’s a different world a few blocks away. First Street, the town’s main street, is lined with shops and restaurants. It’s as classy as San Francisco used to be. Benicia has turned into a destination. The big city dream turned into a surprising small town.

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